Fassel fired as Ravens' offensive coordinator

OWINGS MILLS, Md -- Amid multiple players' noisy dissatisfaction with yet another ineffectual offense and questionable play-calling along with an apparent internal dispute over who was actually running the offense, Jim Fassel was fired as the Baltimore Ravens' offensive coordinator.

Now, Ravens coach Brian Billick will assume the play-calling duties for the AFC North leaders and act as the offensive coordinator for the 28th-ranked offense in the league that's scoring just 18.3 points per game.

"Clearly, for us to be able to expand on our 4-2 start, we have to have more offensive productivity," said Billick, who hasn't called the plays on a regular basis since 1999 in his first season in Baltimore. "It was my opinion going forward to bring about the level of production we needed offensively to go where we need to go that I need to step back in on a day-to-day basis."

When reached Tuesday afternoon following the announcement, several players privately said that Billick had basically no choice except to fire Fassel, adding that they were fed up with the predictability of the schemes and lacked confidence and chemistry with the former New York Giants head coach.

One player speaking on condition of anonymity remarked that Fassel squandered the talent on the roster and commented that the team was on the verge of a revolt if something wasn't done about an attack that's averaging just 271.7 yards of total offense per game. Baltimore (4-2) ranks 27th in passing with 177.3 yards per contest and 24th in rushing with a franchise-low 94.3 yards per game. Another dissenting view was expressed, though, by a starter who predicted that little would change with Fassel's departure because the Ravens' adaptation of the West Coast offense is based heavily on Billick's philosophy and beliefs.

Meanwhile, Billick declined to elaborate on whether the move was prompted by mounting frustrations expressed by prominent members of the offense.

"There was no single incident or episode that brought about this change," Billick said. "It was a collective evaluation on my part that something dramatic needed to be done. It serves no purpose to go back and revisit any particular reason why this has been brought about. So, I'm not going to do it. "I know there will be an interest, a great deal of discussion, speculation, conjecture and why this came about and how it came about. It will be just that, speculation and conjecture."

The back story of how Fassel's unproductive two-year stint as offensive coordinator came to an end varies depending on who's telling it.

One version of events circulated by the team has Billick making the decision independently Monday afternoon and telling owner Steve Bisciotti, general manager Ozzie Newsome and team president Dick Cass about his intention prior to breaking the news to Fassel on Monday night.

Another different rendition of the firing in a published report citing sources close to Fassel has Fassel meeting with Billick and team officials Monday and being informed that Billick wanted to take over the play-calling. At that point, Fassel reportedly said there was no need for him to remain with the team any longer with Billick agreeing and firing him.

Billick has complete contractual authority over hiring and firing assistant coaches without interference from the front office.

Fassel claimed that one of the major problems with the offense was a lack of clarity over who was in charge: himself or Billick.

"Everywhere I've been, I've gotten the offense up and running pretty fast," Fassel told ESPN. "It didn't happen here and the reason I believe is that I wasn't in full control. This has been building for quite a while.

"Finally, I went up to Brian last week and said, ‘Look, Brian, you've always run a good offense and I've always run a good offense, but the bottom line is somebody has to be in charge. Somebody has to pull the trigger and it can't be two guys.'"

Billick, who was nearly fired by Bisciotti, after last season's 6-10 campaign, made the move partly because of concerns over his own job security, according to Fassel.

"Brian was very good about this," Fassel said. "He told me, ‘You're right. My job's on the line and the only way I can deal with this is if I take control of the offense.

"There's a big difference between being a play-caller and running your offense. Calling plays doesn't matter. It's who's structuring that thing." Billick hasn't endorsed the offense lately, and said he was troubled by three turnovers apiece in two consecutive losses.

Plus, Billick criticized the decision to throw a fade pass in the red zone to wide receiver Clarence Moore in a 13-3 loss to the Denver Broncos with cornerback Champ Bailey easily intercepted Steve McNair's short-armed throw.

"Ill-advised," Billick said. "We've got to coach it better, design it better and execute it better. It was very, very costly."

Bailey said he knew what the play was going to be as soon as Moore lined up.

Fassel hadn't made it a secret of his strong ambition to become a head coach again, but had been unsuccessful in getting another job since being hired as a senior offensive consultant by Baltimore in 2004. He interviewed last year for the St. Louis Rams' head-coaching vacancy, but wasn't a finalist. He was once linked to college openings, including Notre Dame and Stanford, but nothing developed. Fassel will continue to be paid by the team, and his son, John Fassel, will remain with the staff as a special-teams assistant.

Fassel coached the Giants from 1997 to 2003, leading New York to two NFC East titles, a conference championship, a wild-card playoff berth and a Super Bowl berth.

Fassel, who had a strong track record with quarterbacks such as John Elway, Phil Simms, Boomer Esiason and Kerry Collins, didn't fare well with erratic former starter Kyle Boller or with McNair. McNair is the 28th ranked passer in the NFL with a 64.1 rating. His seven interceptions are the second-highest in the league. With 5.4 yards per pass attempt, McNair only ranks ahead of Tennessee Titans rookie Vince Young and Tampa Bay Buccaneers rookie Bruce Gradkowski.

Wide receiver Derrick Mason has emerged as the team's most outspoken critic, routinely giving the offense ‘F' or ‘D' grades even after opening the season with four consecutive victories.

"Obviously when you lose two in a row and you don't get [expletive] on offense, excuse my language, until you've got to muster some points, there's not much you can say," said Mason, who didn't catch a pass for the first time this season Sunday in a 23-21 loss to the Carolina Panthers. "Right now, football isn't fun. To hell with football right now."

It was a similar sentiment after the Ravens' loss on a chilly night in Denver.

"We're going to put the blame on everybody. If you don't want to take some blame, then you need to get out of this locker room," Mason said. "It was evident in Game 1, Game 2, Game 3, Game 4, and it was very evident in Game 5, when you score only three points.

"It's very, very disappointing. Whoever tries to sugarcoat it, they don't need to be in this locker room, coaches included."

Nine-time All-Pro offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden has angrily confronted Billick on the sidelines at least twice this year.

Running back Jamal Lewis bubbled over with frustration Sunday after carrying the ball a season-low nine times for 41 yards and being benched shortly after a 17-yard run. He complained that the coaches "pumped the brakes" with the running game beginning to accelerate.

"I guess I wasn't hot enough at that time or whatever," he said. "Everyone wants to know what happened to the running game. Everybody wants to know where the old Jamal Lewis went and where he's at.

"You get a 17-yard run and get taken out. When you hear things about who's hot or who's not, a lot of that I just feel like it's smoke being blown."

The personal element of firing Fassel seemed to affect Billick. They've been friends since meeting at a cocktail party on the Stanford campus a quarter-century ago when Fassel was a young college offensive coordinator and Billick was a public relations assistant with the San Francisco 49ers.

"This is clearly one of the most difficult decisions I've ever had to make not only from a professional level, but for the obvious personal reasons because of the relationship that Jim and I have," said Billick, who fired Matt Cavanaugh as offensive coordinator in 2005 and replaced him with Fassel after unsuccessfully trying to hire Chicago Bears offensive coordinator Ron Turner. "I have an obligation to this organization to do what I think is in the best interest of this team regardless of how it affects you personally."

When a reporter asked Billick to characterize his relationship with Fassel after he stepped away from the podium Tuesday, the coach kept walking and didn't turn around.

Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times in Westminster, Maryland.

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